In its unassuming way, JJ Magazine makes some of the most sparkling and engaging pop music in Cleveland. Not surprisingly, the band’s genesis was equally unassuming. The quintet — drummer Glen McNell, guitarists Paul Sydorenko and Zach Starnik, bassist Mike Ocampo and vocalist Roxanne Starnik — fell together naturally about five years ago. No one in the group had played in any “important” local bands. And their sophomore CD, Dinner, which they’ll celebrate with a Last Supper-themed release party this Thursday (fortuitously, the day Christians celebrate the Last Supper this year) is the first opportunity many will have to hear what the band is about.
"We were all kind of friends," says Zach. "We all lived in adjoining townhouses on Bridge and 60th, in a building called Helen Terrace. Glen and I went to school together in Annapolis, Maryland, and we both moved back here after college. We kind of randomly met Paul and Mike, and we recruited Roxanne — she's my little sister. She was singing backup in a band called Saints of Hearts."
The development of the band's sound was almost as accidental as its coming together. The Starnik siblings are fans of '90s Britpop acts like Pulp. Sydorenko likes indie and folk, while Ocampo incorporates some Motown influence in his playing. All those elements come together in JJ Magazine in music that combines the alluring melancholy melodicism of Britpop with a darkly soulful propulsiveness that recalls '80s new-wave acts ranging from Blondie to the Smiths to the Pretenders. Lyrics about offbeat subject matter (they sang about a 19th-century Chicago urban planner in "Daniel Burnham") and a compelling live show driven by Roxanne's boundless energy, bold vocal delivery and onstage acrobatics give the band a sort of accidental distinctiveness and the strong potential to appeal to a wide range of listeners.
"It all kind of comes together," says Zach who, along with Sydorenko, provides the kernels of ideas that spark the band's songs. "The initial chord progression and melody — me and Paul do a lot of that. You kind of have one idea when you start writing a song, but when it goes through the wringer of the band, it comes out as something different. So in the end, we all pretty much write everything. Paul and I and Roxanne write all the lyrics. If it's a sweeter love song, it's usually Paul. If it's a lot of disturbing imagery, it's usually me. A lot of them are just about the city — life in the medium-sized city."
The band made its first stab at recording with Be Happy Love, recorded in three sessions and released in 2007. This time, the band took its time to hammer out a more cohesive and polished sound that brings out the songs' facets more clearly.
"We have a space in Chinatown where we practice and record," says Zach. "We took year to record this, and we mixed it ourselves. We have some friends who do part-time work with orchestra, so we brought them in to do horns on some of the songs. When you're not on the clock, you have more freedom to explore things like that. The songs were able to evolve a little more in the recording process, so it has a more expansive palette. It can be a benefit and a curse: Before, a lot of people liked it because it was raw and live sounding. But your abilities change. I'd like to think we're all a bit smarter about how music works. We write clever, melodic pop songs — that's really our only goal. I'd like to think we write some hummable melodies that you can dance around to."
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